WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday night on the condition of the United States will likely focus on cajoling recalcitrant lawmakers into bending to his second-term agenda on such issues as immigration reform, reducing gun violence and increasing taxes.
The annual State of the Union speech, which is closely monitored as the presidential blueprint for his goals for the year, is expected to push again for the ambitious progressive plans Obama outlined in his second inaugural address just three weeks ago. The president's priorities also include easing back on spending cuts and addressing climate change.
Aware of the continuing partisan gridlock gripping Washington, Obama is banking on his popularity and the political capital from in his convincing re-election in November to call on Americans to join him in persuading opposition lawmakers to stop stonewalling his vision for what he calls a fairer America with greater opportunity for all.
To that end, Obama plans immediately afterward to make a two-day, three-state foray to take his message directly to the American people. Congress fought the president to a near standstill on virtually every White House initiative during his first term -- though he succeeded in overhauling the health care system. In his second term, Obama has decided that he may stand a better chance of moving his agenda through Congress by garnering support from outside the capital rather than from within.
Massive federal spending cuts that will hit the U.S. economy on March 1 if a compromise isn't hammered out with Congress will surely color Obama's speech to Congress like nothing else. Some economists predict those cuts, known as the sequester, could push the United States back into recession even before it has fully recovered from the Great Recession -- the most serious economic downturn in more than 70 years.
The cuts will slice deeply into spending for the Pentagon and a range of social programs. Obama has indicated some readiness to compromise. For example, he has said he would curb some spending on the Medicare health insurance program available to Americans at age 65, but he is pressing Republicans to give ground on taxes, insisting that more revenue is necessary as the government tackles its spiraling deficit and debt.
The opposition declares it will not give ground on raising taxes. Speaker of the House John Boehner insists that revamping the tax code to close loopholes that benefit the wealthiest Americans and the corporate sector are not open for consideration. And while the sequester, which grew out of a failure to reach a deal in 2011, was conceived as a budget bludgeon unacceptable to both parties, some Republicans now are threatening to let it go forward if Obama does not agree to big cuts in the so-called social safety net programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, which provides health care and other assistance to the poor.
Obama also was expected to refocus on creating jobs in a country where the unemployment rate remains at nearly 8 percent. He failed to address the issue in any depth in his inaugural address, leaving his political opponents an opening to criticize the re-elected president for ignoring an issue of over-riding importance.
Obama also is deeply invested in pushing for new laws aimed at curbing gun violence. Spurred by the mass shooting at Connecticut elementary school late last year, Obama and like-minded Democrats are pushing for tougher regulations on background checks for gun buyers and bans on military-style assault weapons and high-volume ammunition magazines. He will no doubt return to the issue Tuesday night and again in his travels over the next two days in the face of angry opposition from the National Rifle Association lobbying group, many Republicans and even some moderate Democrats who claim any change in gun laws would violate the Constitution's 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.
Another presidential priority -- and possibly the most likely to succeed -- is granting illegal residents a pathway to citizenship. The initiative is deeply unpopular in many House Republicans' districts. But it has the support of some prominent Republican lawmakers who understand that their party needs to soften its stance on immigration if it is to win crucial Hispanic votes.
The Democratic and Republican plans differ on when and how citizenship might occur, with border security a central issue. Resolving these differences may determine whether a major law is enacted in the coming months.
Obama will instead face continuing opposition to any proposal he puts forward in an effort to curb climate change. Given that any major bill was unlikely to pass the divided Congress, the White House has said Obama intends to move forward
on issuing rules to control carbon emissions from power plants as a central part of a second-term effort to slow down climate change, which the president rarely talked about after global-warming legislation failed in his first term. With a major climate bill unlikely to get though a divided Congress, Obama is expected to rely increasingly on his executive authority to achieve whatever progress he makes on climate change.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a fast-rising Republican star, was picked by the party's mainstream leadership to give its traditional response immediately after Obama speaks. That's an honor typically reserved for the party's most impressive rising figures. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul of the Republicans' tea party wing, a loose amalgam of lawmakers determined above all else to shrink government and lower taxes, plans to give an unofficial response.